Hanna Pylvainen's debut novel, We Sinners, is about a large — very large — family that belongs to a small religious sect in Finland originating in the dim distant past. The sect, Laestadianism, calls for very strictly regulated behavior — think Amish, with possible overtones of Lutheran, purified by a schism or two. The novel is told from the point of view of family members, each of whom get a chapter, and the story goes forward in time with each person.
Pylvainen tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that the Rovaniemi family in her book is based on her own. "[Growing up] I was myself ... a believer, and I am now an unbeliever," she says. Laestadianism was founded in the 18th century, and believers see themselves as returning to the true faith of Martin Luther. "And so, what the rest of the world sees as these rules of dos and don'ts, and this very strict lifestyle, they see as a matter of conscience," she says.
When she was young, Pylvainen says, she was a true believer. "I would feel, for instance, extreme guilt over putting on some nail polish or sneaking away to a movie," she says. But her family was not quite the same as the family she writes about in We Sinners. "It does compare ... but absolutely, the stories are fiction," she says. "Picasso says, 'Art is a lie which allows us to tell the truth.' "
As the book opens, the youngest Rovaniemi has just been born — by the end, she's a grown woman. All nine children struggle with identity and the question of whether to stay in the church. "Whether to stay or to go is the single decision that I think is on the mind of every character in the book. I think it's the question that haunts each chapter," Pylvainen says. "To believe, in this kind of old community, in this kind of old-fashioned, in a way, Scandinavian saga, is not easy, and I think, even for those characters who want profoundly to believe ... the rest of the world is sort of always knocking at their door."
One of the main tenets of Laestadianism is forgiveness — something everyone in the book seems to want. "It's done democratically," Pylvainen says, "so theoretically anyone who's within the faith can forgive anyone of any other sin. It's very unusual and very beautiful." At one point, the father in the book asks forgiveness from his children. "One of the things that's profoundly beautiful about that is the idea that what can make you acceptable to heaven could be your own child."
It was hard for Pylvainen to leave the church, which had been a loving and supportive community; in fact, she says, she had to leave twice. "When I left the first time, I felt stricken with grief and with mourning, and I returned." When she left again a few years later, this time for good, her friends treated her as if she had been liberated. "I was free, I had thrown off the shackles of this oppressive church," she says, "and actually I was going through a tremendous mourning. And I think it's that exact feeling that the rest of the world didn't understand, that to leave these communities isn't freedom, that made me want to write the book."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Hanna Pylvainen's debut novel is called "We Sinners." It's about a large, very large family that belongs to a small religious sect originating in Finland. The sect calls for very strictly regulated behavior. Think Amish, with possible overtones of Lutheran, purified by a schism or two. It's told from the point of view of family members. Each family has a chapter and the story goes forward in time with each person. Hanna Pylvainen joins us from the New York Bureau. Welcome to our program.
HANNA PYLVAINEN: Thank you. It's lovely to be here.
WERTHEIMER: Now, your book is basically about the Rovaniemi family and their religion. But this is also your religion - or at least it was. Isn't that right?
PYLVAINEN: That's correct. I was myself Laestadian and a believer and I am now an unbeliever.
WERTHEIMER: The Laestadian - where does that come from, that name?
PYLVAINEN: Laestadian is a branch of Lutheranism and they seem themselves as returning to the true faith of Luther. That after Luther, that there is a greater and greater leniency. And so what the rest of the world sees as these rules of dos and don'ts and a strict lifestyle, they see as a matter of conscience. And the truth of the matter is as a child when I was in this faith and even into my adolescence, I also felt that way. I would feel, for instance, extreme guilt over putting on some nail polish or sneaking away to a movie.
WERTHEIMER: So, you left this very strict faith. Could you describe what Laestadianism is like?
PYLVAINEN: Well, they believe in a very conservative lifestyle of removing yourself from temptation. And those temptations for them can include anything from makeup and earrings and nail polish and dying your hair to much more profoundly important restrictions like no contraception, no premarital sex. And to them, that's a main tenet of their belief, is that you are only human and the best thing to do is to keep yourself away from temptation.
WERTHEIMER: And your Rovaniemi clan that is part of this religion, does it compare to your own family? Is it your own family?
PYLVAINEN: It does compare. I come from a very large family. My father is himself a minister and I do have siblings who are both in and out of the church. But I think, especially with debut novels and especially with the work of women, there's the temptation to want to find more autobiographical connections than there are. I mean, I think part of the question here is why not write memoir? And I had considered writing memoir, but the story of leaving, to me, is not the interesting question. The story, which is much more interesting to me - and part of the reason I didn't want to write memoir - was why people choose to stay.
WERTHEIMER: When the book opens, the littlest child, Upu, has just been born - this little tiny baby. When the book ends, she's grown up and she's talking about her own decisions about her life. All of the children struggle both with how to leave and how to stay over the years in the book. One of them is gay. One leaves and come back. Another sounds as if she'd leave if she thought she could but she doesn't think she can. It seems to me that, in some ways, it feels like all the same person just having different aspects of the same kinds of decisions.
PYLVAINEN: Whether to stay or to go is the single decision that I think is on the mind of every character in the book. I think it's the question that haunts each chapter and even to some extent the parents. To believe in this kind of old community and this old-fashioned, in a way, Scandinavian saga is not easy. And I think even for those characters who want profoundly to believe, who want profoundly to stay, the rest of the world is sort of always knocking at their door or pointing their fingers at them, nudging them, tempting them. And so they're all, I think, struggling a little bit, and more than a little bit, and sometimes putting even their own lives on the line to answer this question.
WERTHEIMER: One of the most attractive things about this faith is forgiveness. Could you just explain what it means and the context of the religion and what it means in the context of the book as well?
PYLVAINEN: The ritual forgiveness is the main tenant of Laestadianism. And it's done democratically. So, theoretically, anyone who's within the faith can forgive anyone of any other sin. And it's very unusual and very beautiful. And so for instance, there is a moment in the chapter coming from Moran, the father, where he reflects on a moment of his anger and then returning to his children late at night on his knees to ask forgiveness from his children. And I think one of the things that's profoundly beautiful about that is the idea that what can make you acceptable to heaven could be your own child. And within the book, the characters both desire and want forgiveness, even the characters who leave. I think that's one of their hardest questions is when you leave then what do you have? Where do you turn for forgiveness? What does the secular world have to offer you?
WERTHEIMER: Now, you said that you left the church. Have you gone back or thought about going back?
PYLVAINEN: I had to actually leave the church twice. I left the first time and I wasn't emotionally strong enough for it. It's very hard to leave a loving community. It would have been much easier if it had been a hateful community, if it had been a terrible childhood. But it wasn't. And what was interesting is that when I left, I was treated by my friends outside of the church as if I was liberated. I was free. I had thrown off the shackles of this oppressive church. I could, you know, do what I want and wear what I want and pierce my ears. And actually I was going through a tremendous mourning. And I think it's that exact feeling that the rest of the world didn't understand, that to leave these communities isn't freedom. That made me want to write the book.
WERTHEIMER: Hanna Pylvainen. Her book is called "We Sinners." Thank you very much for doing this.
PYLVAINEN: It's been a privilege. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.